Published On: Thu, Feb 20th, 2020

5G: This Is THE First That Matters

Where the US is #1 in 5G and why this #1 matters

Over the past two years the industry has been inundated with a never-ending list of 5G “Firsts.” Finally, yes, finally, we are at a point where being first actually means something tangible.

In 2011 I wrote a short report on the US becoming a leader in LTE based on the service deployments and plans of six different operators .

The US’s 5G leadership today directly stems from the 4G deployment strategies and plans of the mobile operators seen in 2011.

2011: The US is THE leader in 4G/LTE

Side-stepping the argument that HSPA+ and WiMAX are not true 4G technologies (remember, at the time those networks were faster than the nascent LTE services), the US deployed networks across a wider range of spectrum bands than operators in other markets, including TeliaSonera, which primarily saw LTE as a photo sharing, dongle-based network service. The U.S. operators utilized a wide range of access devices, including smartphones, tablets and dongles, and upgraded their backhaul infrastructures using fiber optics to support the higher speeds and lower latency. They also offered a range of post- and pre-paid, tiered and unlimited data plans. Rural telco partner programs also emerged to enable faster expansion of LTE to smaller markets.

The diverse deployment strategies and competition to deploy wider and faster than the other guy directly led to the U.S. attaining global leadership in LTE. South Korea was often first with new advancements in LTE, especially LTE-A Carrier Aggregation, but it is the variety of deployments and technologies that puts the US in the lead.

The U.S. operators kicked off 4G in a race that was not originally anticipated and stemmed from the 3G HSPA network upgrades led by T-Mobile and picked up by AT&T (T-Mobile’s roaming partner at the time). Verizon saw itself handicapped by a CDMA technology that had up to 2010 given it 3G network, coverage and performance leadership. Unfortunately, CDMA upgrades could not keep up with the standards acceleration that were rolling out from 3GPP for HSPA, and Verizon quickly found itself with a major speed disadvantage as T-Mobile (and AT&T) aggressively deployed and, especially in T-Mobile’s case, marketed its new high-speed mobile services.

The 4G/LTE race was kicked into high gear when Verizon started to extensively deploy LTE. Sprint had about a year head start in deploying its 4G service but had focused on Tier 2/3 cities. In less than six months Verizon, targeting the Tier 1 cities, had more coverage and never looked back. The development path and device ecosystem for LTE quickly outstripped that of HSPA, resulting in every U.S. operator announcing LTE plans over the next 12–18 months.

Let’s take a look at some selected excerpts from that 2011 report. The parallels to 5G marketing and deployment issues today are uncanny. Two points about the 4G technology then still hold true today: the emphasis on the users’ experiences and the need for fiber to support 4G speeds (which eventually led Verizon to embark on a $1 billion fiber purchase with Corning).

LTE is about the user’s experience: LTE provides for much faster downloads and Web access and also supports interactive gaming across a wide range of devices.

Backhaul remains a key issue: Wireless backhaul remains a critical design point. The shift to fiber backhaul provides scalable backhaul to keep up with cell-site enhancements.

Why the U.S. really is #1 in 5G: Breadth and Depth of Experience
So how does all this add up to the U.S. being #1 in 5G? The U.S. is first in the only 5G category that is really important: experience. The U.S. is the only country in the world to have deployed 5G across all three tiers of spectrum: low-band (600 MHz), mid-band (2.5 GHz), and high-band (24 GHz, 28 GHz, 39 GHz) with two of the four operators AT&T and T-Mobile already running low- and high-band networks. The U.S. is also deploying MIMO and MMIMO, smartphones, hot-spots, access points, and fixed and mobile wireless access.

The U.S. 2019 5G Leadership

AT&T was the first U.S. operator to deploy a standards-based FWA mmWave 5G network, targeted to business customers for almost a year. AT&T made 5G service available to consumers in 13 cities on low-band spectrum in December 2019 and is committed to nationwide 5G coverage early in 2020.

Sprint deployed 60 MHz of 4G and 60 MHz of 5G of its expansive 2.5 GHz band, finally taking advantage of that spectrum. Sprint’s 5G service covers nine markets and approximately 20 million POPs, but the lack of an announced nationwide coverage plan once again plagues the operator with the strongest mid-tier spectrum position in the U.S. (and a key reason why T-Mobile is pursuing acquiring Sprint).

T-Mobile U.S. has the largest 5G network in the country using its unique 600 MHz spectrum to cover about 200 million POPs. It was also the last of the four major carriers to deploy 5G when it activated service running on 28 GHz and 39 GHz millimeter-wave spectrum in six cities.

Verizon originally launched a proprietary FWA mmWave ‘5GTF’ service but has switched over to 28 GHz and 39 GHz 3 GPP 5G, which is now available in 34 markets, 15 National Football League stadiums and the first U.S. 5G airport. Verizon’s 5G network currently is running only on mmWave spectrum and not (yet) its pervasive low-band 700 MHz spectrum.

A year into 5G deployments the industry lacks the wide range of devices (and price points) that drove the early LTE adoption, but this is still a chicken and egg problem. 5G coverage of the majority of the U.S. has not been completed yet. By this time in 2021 the situation will be very different.

One thing that will not change by January 2021 is that the U.S. will still be the global leader in experience because of its breadth and depth of deployments of 5G.

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